Bradley Cole argues that the UK has the opportunity to reassert itself in response to recent Russian foreign policy.
Britain is many things – a maritime nation, a member of the P5 and G8, the world’s fifth largest economy and the United States’ “lieutenant” in global affairs. This makes Britain’s strategy flexible, but arguably undefinable. It is fluid and reactionary but has an underbelly of moral purpose. As stated in the cross-section National Security review: “we have a moral responsibility to work with other countries and the international community to prevent, mediate and mitigate conflict as well as contribute to post-conflict stabilisation and peace-building.”
It is important to understand where this is derived from. From 1750 to 1956, the United Kingdom was expanded, maintained and wielded a global influence across the world. The United Kingdom benefited from its maritime geographic position – the English Channel separated and formed a defensive barrier against the myriad of actors from the Continent: namely France. The United Kingdom’s victory at Waterloo and Trafalgar ensured naval supremacy in the North Atlantic. Once more, the underdevelopment of the United States, Napoleon’s devastation of Continental Europe and its unrestricted developments through the industrial revolution set the foundations of an empire that stood little challenge.
However, Britain’s strength diluted through the two World Wars means that it struggled to maintain its presence. Coupled the rise of post-colonialism, the redefinition of the international system towards national self-determination and a United States that dominate the world’s oceans, Britain was unable to maintain its empire. In 1943, Winston Churchill predicted the United States would become more powerful in the international system than what Britain would be able to achieve and thus began an adjustment strategy to align itself with the United States and its interest.
However, the United Kingdom did this in order to serve its own self-interest. By recognising the United States’ power, the United Kingdom made an imperative to outstrip its allies and naturally solidify its position as the United States’ most reliable ally – through military, ideological, political and economic virtues. This marked the beginning of the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom. In order to maintain this, the United Kingdom would have to consistently outstrip the United States’ other allies in technical sophistication and military versatility. As a result, the United Kingdom would enjoy a superior diplomatic position and be able to extract special economic and political concessions from the United States; influencing the United States’ policy in ways that another ally could not.
The United Kingdom would enjoy a superior diplomatic position and be able to extract special economic and political concessions from the United States.
More generally, the United Kingdom is playing a balancing act, attempting to establish equilibrium between the Continent and the United States. Britain sees the universal values set forth by the European Union as seductive – placing humanist ideals over the primacy of nations whereby ethnic or religious groups would be treated better than others. At the same time, it wishes to maintain autonomy and fears further integration that can compromise future pursuit of alternative options. Additionally, the E.U. redefined itself by promoting universal humanist ideals and expanding east with the promise of peace and prosperity.
In 2008, the promise of prosperity was broken. As a consequence, resurgence towards the protection of the institution of the nation-state swept the Continent. In the midst of the crisis, the Russian Federation began to systematically exploit the divisions plaguing the continent, brokering enticing natural gas deals and concessions in Central and Eastern Europe.
While NATO deliberated its future, agreeing for military cooperation on fighting transnational terrorism and spearheading humanitarian intervention (Libya, 2011), the European Union too was trying to define an arguably non-existent foreign policy. There was agreement in Brussels for a need of confronting “hostile” regimes in pursuing nuclear weapons (Iran, North Korea.) But not through military means; the diplomatic sword indicates the direction for which the European Union pursues its foreign policy — which largely explains the European Union’s participation in the Iranian P5+1 talks on its nuclear programme.
However, the fractures in NATO and the European Union are amplified by its unconvincing stance towards Russia’s acquisition of Ukraine. NATO and the European Union have largely disregarded geopolitics; by concentrating on humanist principles and an undefinable enemy, mixed with a underbelly of optimism from the end of the Cold War, it will be difficult for NATO and the European Union to reorganize itself under one common goal. One need look no further than Germany’s balancing act towards Russia – whilst it wishes to pursue economic sanctions (albeit symbolic), Berlin also takes heed of the fact that it receives at least 40% of its natural energy from the Russian Federation.
Berlin also takes heed of the fact that it receives at least 40% of its natural energy from the Russian Federation.
Moscow is pursuing a strategy of resurging Russia by re-establishing its sphere of influence through the former Soviet Union frontiers. It has done this through three ways 1) nurturing economic interdependence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 2) alliance-building through the form of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) 3) weakening the credibility of Western institutions either by force (Georgia, 2008) or through deflecting Western foreign policy (Syria, 2013). However, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are part of a defensive strategy. In order for it to resurge as a world power, it must have Ukraine. As well as being a defensive buffer from NATO/EU encroachment, it serves as an industrial hub and a fertile agricultural land which rivals the agricultural lands of the American Midwest.
Ukraine is intrinsic to the Russia’s national security. Its actions in Crimea and its sponsoring of pro-Russian separatists is one to reaffirm that it still has the agility to act – militarily or not – in areas that affect its direct interest. However, in the long-run, Russia’s acquisition of Ukraine has taken a portion out of the Russian opposition in Kiev by removing the electoral pool in Crimea. Any further action in Eastern Ukraine will result in a complete loss of pro-European opposition in Kiev and will more than certainly produce a Western-leaning government. Russia, at the very least, must settle for a neutral Ukraine.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have the ability to polarize the European Union’s foreign policy agenda even further. Central Europe is already vastly dependant on Russia’s energy brokering and will not commit to anything other than the symbolic, nor will states compromise their own national interests. This leaves a vacuum for who will fill the void to confront Russia in future generations. The United Kingdom’s natural balancing position on the Continent and Washington leaves it with options. In many ways, it represents an opportunity for the United Kingdom to reassert its authority. Its exclusive relationship with the United States will give it the flexibility to act towards its aspirations whilst retaining the vital balance it has between America and Europe.
Central Europe is already vastly dependant on Russia’s energy brokering and will not commit to anything other than the symbolic.
Bradley Cole is the founder of Geopolitical Compass, a security intelligence website, and specialises in US foreign policy, strategic theory and the Jihadist movement with a diametric opposition to ideology. He has a passion for travel, discussion and motorsport.
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